Janielle Guzinski

Graduate Student - Landscape Architecture,

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What will happen when the world speaks only a few languages?

Increasing levels of globalization are causing a few languages to spread at unprecedented rates. But many less common languages and their associated cultures are going extinct. Programs exist for the conservation of species and habitats at risk of extinction, but very little attention is given to language extinction. Some scientists are suggesting that there are more languages at risk of extinction than bird or mammal species

Does language extinction really matter? It is hard to imagine how the loss of a language halfway around the world would impact your life, and diversity in language makes it difficult to understand one another. But should that diversity be preserved?


  • Jun 5 2013: In the 1990s the idea of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) was developed in order to establish a universal value for indigenous cultures that would hopefully help protect them. One very practical and global incentive for preserving indigenous language is that if the language is lost, then TEK may be lost with it. This is possible as there may be no English or other major language with words to articulate many traditional ecological concepts. However, TEK can be observed if cultures and languages are protected along with the habitats in which they practice TEK. Perhaps we should protect indigenous cultures for many reasons, but one Eurocentric reason is that embedded in TEK are many of the ideas that developed nations ought to consider in order to correct the consequences of centuries of biosphere mismanagement.

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      Jun 7 2013: I agree Robert, I think we could learn a lot from how many of indigenous cultures value, treat, and interact with their ecosystem on a different level. this reminds me of the TED talk that Janielle and Ben posted for us to watch before their presentation, where the people ( I forget where) could identify 12 species of ayahuasca at a far distance, that we would all categorize as the same species. It was pretty amazing.

      Have you ever heard of Darrell Posey?? He was an anthropologist that worked hard to protect the rights of indigenous people in Brazil in the 90s. He also helped develop the idea of indigenous intellectual property rights, protecting the knowledge of these cultures and giving them legal rights to their ideas. I think you might like his article, Intellectual Property Rights: and Just Compensation for Indigenous Knowledge. It discusses the issues faced by the Kayapo people and how they fear turning to the ecologically destructive ways that are encroaching upon them in order to persist. It also touches on the medicinal advantages we have derived from plants discovered by indigenous people. In 1989 an estimated 155 million dollars in sales of 3 drugs based from plants that had been shown to researchers by indigenous people, but less than 0.001% of profits were allocated to these people.

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    Jun 6 2013: I think that language diversity is important because no two languages convey the exact same meanings with every word said. For example, in English you can say “My friend and I went to the park yesterday” and no one knows the gender of your friend, but if you say the same thing in Spanish, the listener has to know the gender of your friend (amigo vs amiga). These differences affect how you can convey spoken information to others in a language.
    There are also many types of slang that make sense in one language but are impossible to translate to another. For example, one of my favorite insults in Spanish is “La madre que te parió” lit. “The mother who gave birth to you.” Depending on the context it can be very offensive, but I’ve most often heard it used in a more friendly context, to express astonishment or admiration for someone you know when they do something crazy/outlandish. (I’m obviously not an expert on Spanish, this is just how I’ve heard and used this phrase in Spain. This may not be true in other Spanish speaking countries). It’s hard to explain but I really like the phrase and what can be conveyed by using it and I can’t think of an equivalent in English.
    It’s hard for me to convey these ideas in a comment, but what I’m trying to say is that different languages allow/require us to interact with others in different ways, by the implicit and explicit information the grammar and syntax require us to provide when speaking and by the unique words and phrases that exist in every language. Losing languages entails loosing this diversity in expressing ourselves and in some ways our ability to describe our experiences and the world around us. So, I do think that language extinction matters
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      Jun 6 2013: Wonderful contribution Christine. (your first paragraph)

      It made me think of the Greek language, and the many words for love.
      Some languages are richer than others.

      Now if we could combine all these into one........well then......
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    Jun 6 2013: How do new technologies change languages? Since the advent of text messaging, chatrooms and other types of digital communication, we have seen significant changes in the written language. Are these changes permanent and indicative of continuing future change? To what degree might changes in written language become integrated into spoken language?

    Related articles:
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      Jun 6 2013: I think that text messaging and chatrooms could change spoken as well as written language. I also know that languages evolve. English has adapted many words from French, German and Latin, among other languages, so who's to say that now English won't adapt what was originally just written words? We've already (in the USA at least) turned nouns like 'Google' or 'Facebook' into verbs, something which I think is really cool.
    • Jun 7 2013: Gwynne and Christine, did you see John McWhorter's talk, "Txting is Killing Language... JK"?
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        Jun 7 2013: Thank you, Lizanne. That was an interesting talk - I had been aware that there was quite a bit of controversy over the effect of texting and tweeting on literacy. It seems like much of the most recent discussion is in support of that language change, while the slightly older literature bemoans the downfall of good writing skills. Lol.
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    Jun 5 2013: We have not yet discussed the future of language change - at the same time that we are losing old languages, new ones are being invented. Right now I am thinking about the urban dictionary for slang (which I use often!), hip-hop language (apparently it has the acronym HHL) and African American Vernacular Language (AAVE). Possibly what prevents them from becoming truly "speciated" is simply that there is so much communication enabled by new technologies, i.e. not as much isolation as in past history.

    I just found this relevant article printed in Science: "The Future of Language Change" by David Graddol, 2004 (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/303/5662/1329.full). One of the quotes is:

    "However, while we lose older, rural languages, new urban hybrid forms may help maintain global diversity. Cities are places where languages mingle and where language change speeds up. And the fast growing urban areas of the world are breeding grounds for new hybrid languages—just as hundreds of new forms of English have already been spawned around the world."
  • Jun 5 2013: I notice here in the Netherlands, that people not only speak impeccable English, but over the past decade or so, more and more English has been integrated into Dutch. You get this sort of Dutch-English combination that is actually called Dunglish (the are hilarious examples of Dunglish gone wrong, though). I think this combination and integration has to do with internet, since most of the English terms I hear have to do with it.
    It makes me wonder, if languages around the globe will gradually start incorporating other languages, and eventually all merge into one? In fact, many words in English are derived from French or German, languages with the same linguistic backgrounds have so many similarities, you'd think it would be easy to just merge them.
    Nationalism plays a big role in keeping that from happening, though, I think.
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      Jun 5 2013: We have Swing-lish here in Sweden! :D
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      Jun 5 2013: I could see over time having a mixture of languages. It's hard to say which language would be the prominent language, but here in the U.S. many people incorporate french and spanish words casually into their daily conversations, not to mention many businesses often take on foreign names that people then become familiar with. I think as more people, particularly in countries like the U.S. and England where only knowing one language is very common, become bilingual you'll see more people incorporating multiple languages into their conversations.
      • Jun 6 2013: That's the thing, Ryan, I wonder if then no language would be prominent - it would literally evolve into a sort of linguistic mashed potatoes. It comes down to broadening horizons, though, and still today there are people who are born, live and die in the same small town, never exposing, or getting the chance to expose, themselves to other languages. You can then turn to the media, where programs of all languages are offered, but lots of countries (France, Italy, Germany) synchronize everything.
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      Jun 5 2013: And we have Span-glish here in South Florida.
      • Jun 6 2013: I had to grab this from Wikipedia:

        "One of the best quoted examples of Dunglish was said to have taken place between the Dutch foreign minister Joseph Luns (a man whose main foreign language was French, the language of diplomacy prior to World War II) and John F. Kennedy. At one point Kennedy inquired if Luns had any hobbies, to which he replied "I fok horses" (the Dutch verb fokken meaning to breed). Likely taken aback by this strangely obscene reply, Kennedy asked "Pardon?", which Luns then mistook as the Dutch word for "horses" ("paarden") and enthusiastically responded "Yes, paarden!"[1]"
      • Jun 7 2013: Thanks for the warning - the chicken feet killed me, then the 'spaghettis', but my favorite has to be: "Was bob wire really named after its inventor, Bob?" Wonderful!!
        Language is such a joy.!
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      Jun 6 2013: I've seen this with Spanish a lot, especially with new and technology based words, like wifi and internet which are spelled the same in Spanish but pronounced differently. But, even with those examples I don't think languages are going to merge into one anytime soon.
      Even though many English words are derived from romance languages like French or Latin, other parts of the language are more like German, so it still seems like it would be hard to merge them together.
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    Jun 5 2013: I think that it would be great if everyone spoke the same language. There are however many things that can be expressed in many languages that other languages can't express (or express in the same way). If/when they are lost humanity looses a way of expression that we may never regain.
    Further more understanding language is really important for history scholars, to help us understand who ewe are and where we came from.

    So my position is this: it's going to be a great cultural loss and a gain in effective communications. I just hope that we record every language we can before they go extinct.

    Have you read the Wiki? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_death
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      Jun 5 2013: I think it would be a cultural loss to lose languages. However, you can't force people to speak a language they don't want to. We should record as much as we can of current languages in order to preserve them for historical value. I could see many languages persisting for a long period of time, especially when the languages are characteristic of a large country. But we may see a more universal language develop in the long-term that represents a combination of some of the most common languages.
      • Jun 6 2013: Ryan I agree that it would be a cultural loss for the world if individual languages were to disappear. This BBC article from 2009 addresses that topic. Globalization has open up a world of opportunity but it also puts cultural identities at risk unless people make an effort to retain their cultural identity.

        However, I did find this article interesting because it aludes to the importance of knowledge of a second language that may well be universal in order to facilitate social mobility and modernization as they put it.

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          Jun 6 2013: I agree with you Sonja, the globalization of the planet will make it increasingly important for people to communicate. 100 years ago we still thought as nations but now we must think "globally." In order to solve the worlds problems communication between all of the nations is important.
    • Jun 7 2013: Jimmy, in response to the Wiki link you shared on language death, did you try the hyperlink about language attrition, "the loss of a first or second language or a portion of that language":

      "The term 'First Language Attrition' (FLA) refers to the gradual decline in native language proficiency among migrants." In the process, the common language of that country would slowly become integrated into the migrant's use. I am a migrant, 'imported' to Holland from the states, and experience this first-hand.

      Perhaps this is more the direction we are going, linguistically?
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        Jun 7 2013: Yes, I fully agree that that language attrition has it's parts to play. (I checked it now, very interesting)
        But I think that it's all going to be an altered version of English that continue to be to be the dominant language in the world. And that's because English happened to be the biggest and most spread language when world-wide communications became available. It's also the best way of finding viable information, not that many research papers made in Swedish compared to English. So curious minds tend to learn it.

        Not to mention medias part in it, Hollywood films being the biggest consumer option in the world for movies, mostly in English. And most music that is listened to is in English, many don't understand the words that they are singing but they get a little and that puts English in their language.

        The world's most famous word is "Okay".

        But with better and better technology we're able to record and understand languages better and learn them when we want to. Just look at all the computer software like Rosetta Stone that is out there with recorded languages, those aren't going away.
        Some people (quite a lot when you think about it) know how to read Hieroglyphs today.

        But yeah, language attrition swallows the really small ones while all the bigger languages will be preserved in different types of recordings while they are spoken less and less.

        Mandarin and Spanish (or versions of them) will probably stick around for quite some time though.
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          Jun 7 2013: Even as language attrition is occurring, I find it interesting to consider the pieces of language that have been conserved over time. Maybe there are some types of words or ways of expression that are simply too important or intrinsic to the human condition to be lost. The example that I'm thinking of is the word for "Mother" - in a great number of wildly different languages it begins with a sound that babies tend to make when they put their lips together as though for nursing. According to this news article:
          the root "ma," meaning "breast," may be the most widespread word in the world. For that matter, now that I'm thinking about it, that is also the same sound used by baby calves when they are hungry.
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        Jun 7 2013: Thanks for the link, Lizanne.

        From my personal experience - I live in a country where the community, or one of communities I am a part of is bilingual - speaking both Polish and Norwegian at different levels. Most of the members of the community came here in their mid twenties, have their families and friends in both countries and partners from either one or the other. Some of them do not have partners. From my observation language attrition that you brought up is an issue for those members of community who came here as children or teenagers, but it's not on morphological or syntactic level, but on cultural level. You cannot share all of the cultural or semipolitical jokes or comments with them as it is meaningless, they can understand the words or lines, but not read between them and/or react with laughter as a result. They were simply never exposed to either literature, films or phenomena that are the base for some of the sociolinguistic trends and have little or no cultural adherence to them in their, let's say, memory, which makes understanding of some things difficult.

        Conversely, the members of the community that came here later and do not have the experience of childhood/teenage years in this country may have difficulty understanding some of the Norwegian jokes, comments or trends that are native or a natural part of experience of those who came here as children/teenagers. Those experiences build the language, or the sociolect that they have and share. Level of education plays a role here as well, but that's not what I'm referring to, just linguistic dynamics.

        All this cannot be compared to what happened to Gaelic, it's actually rather new - attrition of cultural aspects of some parts of the language. Or even deletion. But who knows what will happen to the very language in the future, I mean the language on the level of morphemes/syntax, not semiotic entities (forgot the term...)
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        Jun 7 2013: Hi again,

        Just another thought and a memory - language attrition among the migrants can be effectively battled especially if the migrants were moved somewhat against their will - either had no choice, were left behind due to geopolitical trends (like moving of borders etc.), or had to escape, seek asylum, were sent to a foreign country as a punishment.
        All this may lead to strenghtening of emotional ties with country, culture and language of origin and consequently - the need to preserve it in the community, sometimes in secret, sometimes in the open depending on the situation.

        Example - I remember visiting a neighbouring country of Lithuania at the age of about 13. That was before the internet and before gaining access to TV or radio from other countries was as easy as it is now. The place where my sister and I were staying had a Polish community that had a strong goal and dedication to the goal which was preserving the native language (Old Trakai just outside of Vilnius, nice place with a castle).

        I remember being stopped in the streets by seniors, one of them began to cry saying "Polish children came to visit us!"... and her Polish was better than the Polish of some of the children in our group. The pronunciation was a bit "non-modern" and influenced by Lithuanian, but still... It was the language of literature. I remember other interesting episodes as well that support the idea at the top of this comment - language attrition can be battled if the will is there.
        And I paid for the trip myself after earning money working in the fields in West Norway! :) Just bragging, probably ;-)

        Best wishes.
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    Jun 6 2013: Answer to the main question : Then we will be able to communicate better and easily.
    Language, culture evolves that's it beauty....language become enriched with entry of new words from foreign languages...the language that is more receptive to that adoption is more vibrant.
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    Jun 6 2013: Just to play devils advocate but will the homogenization of language around the world lead to an increase in the understanding between people? If we all spoke the same language it would make it more possible to spread ideas to each other. Just a thought.
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      Jun 6 2013: Kind of going off what you said Nick, what are the harsh downfalls of language homogenization? I believe having so many different languages is a beautiful thing personally because it gives us so many different cultures in which we can gain endless knowledge and perspective. But really, what bad things would happen if we all spoke the same language?
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        Jun 7 2013: I don't know that there would be a "bad" thing to language homogenization. It may allow for greater acceptance of cultures and increased communication because maybe people would not look at others so differently and would feel more connected. I would hate to lose languages, because like you said Laurel, they provide us with knowledge about unique cultures. Cultural loss would be a big effect of language homogenization, but I'm not sure if there would be major negatives to language homogenization.
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        Jun 7 2013: I agree that culture loss would be a huge downfall of language homogenization. To me, it would make the world too uniform. It would be weird if every country we traveled to, we could read the signs, and speak the language, I think that is part of the adventure.

        Also, I think it would depend on what stage of homogenization we were at. What ever language we all were merging to, at some point native speakers would be at a social and economic advantage than people trying to learn it or not as fluent, this could lead to underrepresentation of certain groups at world events.

        This article kind of touches on that, and discusses two paradigms: promoting English across the board or promoting multilingualism.

        English only world wide or Language Ecology
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    Jun 5 2013: I think we should also consider the multiple functions of language and whether moving towards a small number of commonly spoken languages would actually fulfill all of our needs. Yes, of course, language is used to communicate, but it is also used for social cohesion and to create boundaries, as a way to define who is and who isn't part of a group. The need to satisfy these other functions may ensure that there will always be niches for the less mainstream languages.

    See this article for more info: http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/english/angela-reyes/repository/files/18942789.pdf
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      Jun 5 2013: I agree with Gwynne and think that language is so much more then communication and has strong ties to social/group cohension and, to an extent, culture. This importance of language has long been recognized I think - see any example of dictators, colonialists etc repressing the language of some unfavored group within their territory throughout history.
      Also, I think the invention of modern Hebrew is very interesting to think about in these situations. It is one of the only examples I can think of where there was a deliberate revival and modernization of an ancient language.
    • Jun 6 2013: I think that moving towards a small number of commonly spoken languages may result if people are not culturally attached to their language. Hebrew is an example of once dead language that is not considered to again be a living language as the Jewish population has taken great care to reincorporate it into their identity.

      This also brings up the point that knowledge of a second (or more) language(s) is a useful skill to have that seem to be undervalued in the United States because English is such a commonly used language worldwide. Here is a link NEA research study about the benefits of studying a second language .

      I think you might find the California Foreign Language Project’s (CFLP) interesting:http://cwlp.stanford.edu/resource/Stanford_CFLP%20Handbook.pdf
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        Jun 7 2013: Sonja I think it should be mandatory in our school system that kids are taught a 2nd language from the beginning of their education. Not only would this create a more diverse workforce in the future, but it would improve the overall education (including cultural education) of our children. I do notice that people that are either fluent or very familiar with a 2nd language are usually better workers and study much more in school (I've observed this not only among my friends but also my students).This study talks about many of the benefits of knowing a second language.

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          Jun 7 2013: yeah, I agree Ryan, second language should absolutely be part of our curriculum. The list of benefits you posted is incredible, I was surprised it could have such positive influence in other areas of study too, such as math?!
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    Jun 5 2013: I would say it really does matter, and for the same reasons that Jimmy Strobl cites. I believe our strength comes from our diversity. Language reflects the way we think and how we perceive the world. If we allow languages to continually decline in variety, then our ability to conquer new problems and see advantages in new opportunities will decline also because of the resulting aggregate cognitive skill reduction. Language homogenization therefore makes us weaker. Many will view the subject of 'single language' as a solution to confusion and increased costs of inter cultural exchanges, citing it would be so much 'easier' to conduct ourselves if we all spoke and thought the same. I would see that as the beginning of the end of us. But, if most agree with that 'singular' perspective, I would suggest we annihilate their language(s) and culture(s) first.
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    Jun 5 2013: janielle, did you want more time on your conversation, you can click edit and add more.

    probably I don't care too much if a language is lost, because language is a tool to live our lives, and as long as we have some high-quality language we can live effectively. It's not like losing the language means we forget about the people who spoke that language, we still remember and appreciate them. Also, I don't think any language is ever 100% lost, every language touches all the other languages and they all give and take to each other, so that whatever language "wins" still is shaped by the "losers."
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        • Jun 5 2013: I see the parallel between species extinction and language extinction. Species can evolve or die out naturally over time or humans can over exploit them and degrade their habitat, causing them to die out in a relatively short amount of time.
          Similarly, as people interact with the world and each other in new ways, language will change. I do think the means by which this change occurs and the time scale over which it occurs matters.
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        • Jun 5 2013: Yes, but is it “natural” when these people have basically been forced into assimilation because of years of oppression and turmoil? What would have happened if Europeans had recognized different Native American peoples as independent nations with unique cultures and let them be?
        • Jun 6 2013: Sadly it is true that many native american languages have died out because there is not necessarily the need for them on a day to day basis. Nevertheless I think that they are important to each tribe in retaining their cultural identity. Also, if anyone remembers the film "Windtalkers", it brings to light the story of how the Navajo language was used in WWII as a code that remains unbroken to this day (http://www.navajocodetalkers.org/ is the official website of the Navajo codetalkers). For me this was an interesting example to read about given the U.S.'s history of oppressing the Native American people and forcing them off their native lands and on to reservations (Trail of Tears). Despite all of that in the U.S's time of need, despite the history with the government the people of Najavo nation were instrumental in the outcome of WWII.

          Nowadays maybe it is necessary for governments to intervene. Overtime we've recognized the importance of regional languages or native people's languages to their cultural identities and history...maybe it's time to work with the people to ensure the survival of these languages. Thoughts?
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    • Jun 7 2013: LaMar, your comment rings true with the Dutch people - it is a small nation, but extremely densely populated (16 million people crammed into a country the size of Maryland.) But, the Dutch were a force to be reckoned with in the 1600s, and hung on to their language for hundreds of years while in America, despite other language influences. This article outlines how language has been affected and survived throughout the world, despite the fact that "More than 25% of all the languages in the world have fewer than 1000 speakers.":